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Manatee deaths in Florida are on the verge of reaching 1,000

A lacking food source is leaving the sea cows emaciated.

TAMPA, Fla. — Editor's note: The video in the player above is from a 2021 manatee rescue.

Manatee mortality rates in 2020 were considered to be the worst in recent years — that is until 2021 came along. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports 997 manatees have died since Jan. 1, 2021, compared to the confirmed 637 manatees that died in 2020, per its final mortality report. 

While 589 of the mammals, noted in the latest manatee mortality table, died and were not necropsied — an animal autopsy — the majority had natural or perinatal deaths.

FWC reports 106 manatees had perinatal deaths, while 149 experienced natural deaths.

A perinatal death includes those "manatees less than or equal to 150 cm (5 feet) in total length which were not determined to have died due to human-related causes." 

So why are manatees dying at such high rates off the Atlantic coast? FWC says it is still investigating but that an initial assessment indicated a high number are emaciated due to a decline in seagrass and macro algae.

"Improving water clarity and light penetration is essential for the restoration of healthy seagrass communities," the state agency's website reads.

Seagrass, like other plants, needs sunlight to grow; but persistent algal blooms have stunted its ability to do so dramatically. As a result, the primary food source for manatees has been scarce.

The Florida manatee is a native species that can be found in multiple waterways across the state. According to FWC, there are an estimated 7,520 to 10,280 manatees statewide today, reclassifying them from an endangered species in 2017.

Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan would like to change that. He wrote a letter earlier this year to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking for the beloved manatee to be considered as "endangered" rather than its current "threatened" status given the dramatic increase in manatee deaths.

"Time is of the essence," Buchanan wrote.

If you see a dead, sick, or injured manatee you are asked to contact the FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922 or by dialing #FWC on a cellphone.